Thursday, December 17, 2009

Humans bad! Aliens good! It's 'Avatar'

Jake becomes an avatar to learn native ways.

The long list of technical credits for James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar don't pile as high as the stacks of money the movie surely will earn, but they do attest to Cameron's ability to push the medium to its limits. Like Titanic, Avatar will be a box office bonanza, prompting multiple viewings among fans and producing a stream of devotees who believe the movie's encompassing use of 3D and masterful deployment of motion-capture techniques will revolutionize moviemaking as we know it.

At minimum, Avatar seems destined to become a touchstone for geeks everywhere, and five minutes in, you certainly can see why it took Cameron four years to complete his elaborate sci-fi fantasy.

For more than an hour, I found myself wondering whether Cameron hadn't achieved what he hoped, a full immersion in a world so compelling, it sweeps you away. But the movie kept on going -- two hours and 40 minutes -- long enough to expose its deficiencies: the over-ripe pulpy dialogue, the juvenile thinking and the obvious and dated references to such politically explosive matters as Vietnam and Bush era foreign policy.

Avatar's catalog of effects, which carry the picture a long way, range from industrial-strength macho to Tinkerbell ethereal. And, I swear, I thought of both George Lucas and Walt Disney while watching Avatar, not quite the right references for those us who prefer Cameron in his grisly sci-fi mode, a la The Terminator and Aliens.

The thematic underpinnings of the story can't be regarded as one of its strongest points: Avatar pits imperialism, materialism and greed against the natural purity of an indigenous population on the planet Pandora. Ravenous corporate earthlings -- in cahoots with the military -- want to trample the planet, regarding it only as a source of the mineral unobtainium. I'm not making up that name, by the way. Unobtainium? Why not something even less subtle? How about greedium?

The locals -- aliens called the Na'vi -- live in Pandroa's forests and are in tune with the natural environment. Cameron imbues the Na'vi with many of the idealized qualities with which Earth's indigenous populations so often are romanticized. They love nature and understand how to live in harmony with animals, even ferocious ones. Forget selfish individualism. Among the Na'vi, there's much talk of "the people."

Like Titanic, Avatar also revolves around a love story. Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, a Marine whose legs were paralyzed in combat. Jake arrives on Pandora to replace his late scientist brother. Because Jake shares DNA history with his brother, he's able to complete his brother's mission and become an avatar, a creature created by mixing human and alien DNA. A human subject climbs into a sleeping chamber, dozes off and emerges in the wilds of Pandora as an avatar, in this case as a member of the Na'vi tribe, 10-feet tall creatures that look like humans, although they still have tails.

Once propelled into the world of the Na'vi, Jake -- or more precisely his Na'vi avatar -- is able to walk and run. The Na'Vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) takes a liking to Jake and initiates him into the ways of the Na'vi, which include learning how to merge with the spirits of other creatures (it's done by linking tails), riding prehistoric-looking beasts and generally adopting a greener-than-thou attitude. The Na'vi may appear primitive, but their intelligence is more geared toward survival than that of the earthlings, who already have despoiled their own planet.

At times, Avatar almost seems like a fairy tale -- assuming you like fairy tales that come fully equipped with bruising battles and thudding heavy machinery. The jungles and floating mountains of Pandora are richly imagined, and state-of-the-art 3D tends to pull you into the world that Cameron so painstakingly has created.

The movie raises questions that are less than groundbreaking. We know that Jake will fall for Neytiri and that he will face a moral dilemma. Will he side with the Na'vi or with the corporate militarists -- led by Giovanni Ribisi (as a heartless businessman) and Stephen Lang (as a Marine officer)? Sigourney Weaver signs on as a scientist who believes that the way to win Na'vi hearts is through understanding and diplomacy. She wants to bond with the Na'vi; the corporate guys want to break them to pieces.

I wasn't bored by Avatar, but the longer it wore on, the more it became apparent that the thinking behind it can be as simplistic as the movie's technology is complex. And even that wouldn't matter if it didn't seem as if Cameron was taking himself so damn seriously. I guess when you're able to raise somewhere around $300 million to make a movie, ego inflation is inevitable.

And after the revenue-producing triumphs of Titanic, who really believed that Cameron would be content as the self-proclaimed king of only one world?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review thanks.

I am inspired by the spirituality of the Na'vi people and want to carry that spirit into the real world.

For that purpose I created a forum at and invite all people who are in touch with the Na'vi spirituality to join us.